Stephen Delahunty reports on the cutting off of the water supply in north-east Syria – a move amounting to a war crime – and what this means for the Coronavirus pandemic in the country.
More than a million people in Kurdish-held areas of north-east Syria are being put at risk of a mass Coronavirus outbreak as Turkish-backed groups repeatedly cut off the water supply to a region in which health services are already severely damaged by almost a decade of war.
Turkish forces began occupying areas along its border with Syria after US forces withdrew from the region last October. This includes the Alouk water station located in the eastern countryside of the city of Ras al-Ain (Sere Kaniye) – a major source of water used by residents in multiple surrounding areas including Hasakah, Til Timir and both the al-Hol and al-Arishah displacement camps.
Turkish-backed groups have repeatedly cut off the supply since the start of the year, expelling workers from the station as leverage to demand that Kurdish-led local authorities provide increased electricity to areas under their control before allowing the water to flow again.
Non-profit organisation the Rojava Information Centre has already documented the systematic targeting of health and water infrastructure by occupying Turkish forces. In addition, the closure of the only UN aid crossing in north-east Syria has left the autonomous region at extreme risk from the Coronavirus.
A lack of international recognition for the Autonomous Administration (AA) means that the World Health Organisation (WHO) refuses to support the region directly, leaving the area reliant on its own dwindling resources and aid routed through the Bashar al-Assad regime – little of which ever arrives to the north-east of the country.
Only one confirmed COVID-19-related death and around a dozen potential cases of the Coronavirus have been identified so far, but a lack of testing facilities means that the actual figure is likely to be much higher.
Only two of 11 public hospitals remain undamaged following the war with ISIS, and the Turkish invasion, while only 26 of 279 public health centres are still functioning. The region only has five PCR test machines equipped to test for the virus.
In addition, there is only one ventilator for every 100,000 people and Kurdish authorities are predicting a death rate in refugee camps and detention centres of at least 10%.
Water as a Political Weapon
Sozda Ahmed, co-chair of the Water Bureau for the Hasekah canton, explained that it is working on a substitute water pumping station to be used when Turkey cuts the flow from Alouk.
“We aim to dig 50 wells,” she said. “Though it can’t completely replace Alouk, our people will not risk death from thirst. We dug one well as an experiment, and found that the water meets international standards for drinking. However, this project will only be able to produce 30% of the capacity of Alouk, which serves 1.2 million people. It’s a stopgap, for when Turkey cuts the water-flow.”
The WHO recommends 20 litres of water per person per day, but residents in the region only had access to seven litres per person per day even before the pandemic broke out.
“Keeping clean is the foundation of protecting ourselves against Coronavirus,” Ahmed added. “If there is no water, and people cannot clean, it creates a big opportunity for Coronavirus to spread in our city. We started major cleaning and disinfecting operations when Coronavirus emerged in the region, but unfortunately we don’t have enough water to continue these efforts once we have distributed it all to everyone in the affected area.”
Restricting Access to Water a War Crime
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Turkish authorities to immediately do everything they can to resume supplying water through the Alouk water pumping station.
It says that the Turkish authorities’ failure to ensure adequate water supplies to Kurdish-held areas in north-east Syria is compromising humanitarian agencies’ ability to prepare and protect vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 crisis.
“In the midst of a global pandemic that is overloading sophisticated governance and infrastructure systems, Turkish authorities have been cutting off the water supply to regions most under strain in Syria,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW.
The Turkish Government has not responded to a request for comment but, under international human rights law and the laws of war, all parties to an armed conflict must protect objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population – including those necessary for water distribution and sanitation.
International human rights law also obligates governments and de facto authorities to respect the right to water and ensure that people can enjoy clean, available, acceptable, accessible and affordable water and sanitation.
Thomas McClure, a Syria-based researcher at the Rojava Information Centre has called on the WHO to work directly with the AA to provide test kits, more PCR machines and ventilators, and for NGOs providing frontline services to be allowed access to the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan.
“Turkey needs to immediately cease cutting off the water flow from Alouk water station and leaving up to a million people without access to clean drinking water, as this constitutes a war crime and will severely worsen the impact of Coronavirus in the affected region.”